Scotland’s Winter Festivals

winter festival lerwick shetland by anne burgess

As winter begins in Scotland, days become much shorter and the dark of night longer. You may not see sunrise until after nine in the morning and it will begin to get dark in mid afternoon. You will often see snow, it will certainly rain, cold will range from tolerable to brutal, and those short times of daylight may be sun filled or dreich — covered with grey clouds.

Sound grim? It’s not at all. In Scotland the winter months are a time for gathering in, for celebrating family, friends, music, and the unique joys of winter. It’s a fine time to travel in Scotland, too, enjoying the bright lights of the cities and the quiet joys of the countryside. It’s a time of winter festivals.

Celebrations of the festive season, as its known in Scotland, begin in the days leading up to and including Saint Andrew’s Day on 30 November. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and his day is Scotland’s national day. It is often the signal for Christmas lights to be lighted at home and in public venues, too, and for families and business associates to gather for festive meal.

Coinciding closely as it does with the beginning of Advent and preparations for Christmas, you will often find holiday markets, either one off weekend ones or ones that run through the festive season, beginning around Saint Andrew’s Day. There a huge one in Lanark that runs most days until Christmas Eve, and several in Edinburgh including one which brings in traders from many European Christmas traditions. Glasgow’s George Square is often the site for ice skating as well as holiday vendors through the season, while up to the far north in Lerwick in Shetland there’s a weekend of Christmas tree lighting and holiday parades, and in Orkney at least one weekend will see regional artists and craftspeople having a fair to offer their creations. Towns small and larger schedule holiday parades, and many of these will include visits from some of Scotland’s own reindeer, who live year round in the CairnGorms.

Christmas is generally a family time in Scotland, celebrated mainly at church (look out for some fine festive season music at church events) and in the home. Some think this a result of the long legacy of the Protestant Reformation, when celebrating Christmas was considered a Catholic practice to be avoided.

It is also a time to savor the quiet joys of exploring Scotland’s mountains and waters, and the more lively aspects of the mountains at Scotland’s ski areas.

highland winter scotland by adam ward

Whatever your thoughts on Christmas, however, be prepared to join in for a full out sharing of exuberance as Scots welcome in the New Year with bells, toasts, parties, fireworks. music, and just about every other sort of festivity you can imagine.

Up in Stonehaven, between Saint Andrew’s and Perth, it is a tradition to welcome in the new year with a parade through the town, a parade which includes people swinging whirling balls of fire which are then thrown into the town’s harbor as the parade ends. In the Western Isles, at An Lanntair (whose name means the The Lantern in Gaelic) in Stornoway on Lewis there will be music to welcome in the new year, while over in Falkirk one of Scotland’s newer icons, the massive horse sculptures The Kelpies, will be lit up as a festival takes place in the park around them. Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle and the sound of the bells ringing across the city at midnight are beamed around the UK through television and internet.
fireworks edinburgh scotland hogmanay

Though licensing restrictions usually mean BBC Scotland and BBC Alba television broadcasts and internet streams are not available outside the UK, on New Year’s Eve leading up to the bells, these restrictions are often waved so people from around the world can join in.

In Scotland, the new year is called Hogmanay, and there are many theories as to how that word came to be, with antecedents suggested from Norse, Flemish, and other languages. The one I like best is the idea that it comes from Gaelic, in which oge maidin means new morning.

Did you think we were done with Scotland celebrating in winter? Of course not! There are still more winter festivals to enjoy.

alasdair fraser natalie haas at celtic connections glasgow by kerry dexter

In Glasgow from the middle to the end of January, it’s Celtic Connections. Musicians and listeners from all across Scotland and all around the world come to share and celebrate musical traditions that connect past and present. Among the artists in 2016 will be Patty Griffin and Tim O’Brien from the United States, AnDa Union from Mongolia, Les Poules de Colin from Quebec, The East Pointers from Newfoundland, Altan from Donegal, RANT Fiddles whose members come from Shetland, Black Isle, and the Highlands of Scotland, Aly Bain from Shetland (who will celebrate his seventieth birthday at the fest with a concert featuring many musical friends), The Alt, whose members come from Dublin and Dundalk by way of Edinburgh, New York and North Carolina, and many others. There will also be talks, the late night festival club, come and try workshops, sessions, and other events in this celebration of musical tradition and connection.

At the other end of Scotland, up in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January, it’s Up Helly Aa. There is music there, too, but the focus is on something else entirely: fire. Harking back to Norse fire festival tradition, people take on roles known as guizers, put on in Viking like costumes, carry flaming torches through the streets, and and burn a long boat in the city center. It is known as Europe’s largest fire festival. The tradition of fire festival in winter goes back to pre Christian times, and you will find others in Scotland (for example that New Year’s parade in Stonehaven) but Up Helly Aa is indeed a major festival to experience. People in Shetland prepare for it all year long, as they have been doing since the revival of the tradition in Lerwick in the 1880s.

All across Scotland — all around the world, for that matter — you will find people celebrating on 25 January. That marks the day which honors Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. Though he wrote hundreds of poems and collected and adapted hundreds of folk tales and songs, he died when he was well short of forty and that was several centuries ago. Yet you may find statues of him in, at the last count I heard, more than two dozen countries, his songs and poems are learned, sung, and recorded by people across the world, he has inspired poets from India to New England and you may find his image on Scottish banknotes and well as tea towels. Why the lasting fascination? Two reasons, I think. Robert Burns writes of universal subjects — love found and lost, celebrated and mourned, longing for home, appreciation of the natural world, respect for individuality, the importance of friendship — and he gives those subjects a Scottish connection and identity, a celebration of courage and character lit by a dash of humor that Scots can enjoy and those who don’t know Scotland can share.

At your New Year’s Day/Hogmanay celebrations you very likely sang or heard a song from Robert Burns on the joys of friendship:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne 
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, 
We’ll tak’ a cup o kindness yet, for days of auld lang syne

robert burns george square glasgow copyright kerry dexter

So on Burns Day itself, listen in to his poem about haggis (which is actually more about Scottish identity than the dish itself), have some of that haggis if you dare along with the traditional accompaniments of neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), cranachan ( a sweet made with raspberries, oats, cream, and whisky) and perhaps a dram of whisky for a toast to the explorations you have made of Scotland’s winter celebrations.Should you wish for music to go along, take a listen to the ideas in Scotland’s Music:A Saint Andrew’s Day Tapestry.

Photograph of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas by Kerry Dexter, made at Celtic Connections with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue involved. Photograph of statue of Robert Burns in Glasgow also by Kerry Dexter. Other photographs by and courtesy of, respectively, Anne Burgess, Adam Ward, and William Starkey.

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